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Rangiroa - Christmas Island 16 March

It was pouring with rain the morning of our departure from Rangiroa. Flemming went to the tower to try and get an infrared satellite picture of the latest weather over the Internet.  It looked fine when we checked it at an Internet café the day before, but he would have liked an update. The connection was so bad, though, that this proved impossible. Meanwhile, I struggled to load the plane in the pouring rain without getting all our bags wet.  I donned my emergency rain coat and carried them one by one in the only large plastic rubbish bag I could find.  Fortunately Rofina of the Rangiroa Lodge had been able to position the van quite near the plane.  Once we were all packed up and ready to go, I ran to the terminal to use the toilet before boarding the plane for the long flight, only to find that it was locked!  I asked around and it seemed that the only person who had the key to it hadn't shown up yet, in spite of the fact that a scheduled flight was about to leave as well as us.  In the end I had to resort to hiding behind some bushes just beyond the plane.  The rain had eased a little by then!

The really bad weather was south of us at Tahiti, but even so we flew in cloud and rain for the first two hours.  I kept looking through the cloud layer in vain for a welcome patch of blue sky and was heartily relieved when we finally broke out of it.  I celebrated by taking out the computer to write up the last story!   There was a 12-knot headwind for about the first 4 hours.  Then the wind veered to the north-east and then east and we got a slight tailwind for the last couple of hours.

About 5 and a half hours out of Rangiroa, Tahiti handed us over to San Francisco control but gave us the wrong HF frequency.  As a result we had a lot of trouble communicating with them until San Francisco told us to go back to the same South Pacific HF frequency that we had been using all along with Tahiti (13261 kHz).   Talking to San Francisco and hearing an American controller made us feel we were getting a little closer to the States.  About one hour out of Christmas Island airport we crossed over the Equator, so we're back in the northern hemisphere for the first time since we left it over Borneo at the end of December. 

In case you're wondering where to find Christmas Island on the map, it's about 1100 nautical miles south of Hawaii and 4000 nautical miles west of the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador).  The nation of Kiribati consists of many islands stretching over a distance of close to 4000 kilometres  from west to east. We were confused about the date as the Kiribati airport directory says it is west of the dateline (same as New Zealand), whereas the Jeppesen En Route charts showed it to be in the same time and date zone as Tahiti and Hawaii which are east of the dateline.  When we talked to the Christmas Island controller 40 minutes out, we asked him whether it was Saturday the 16th or Sunday the 17th.  The friendly man chuckled and said it was Sunday.  Thank goodness we were not landing in Tonga as they don't allow flights on Sundays!

But since there were no other flights to Christmas Island on a Sunday, the controller and customs and immigration officials had to come to the airport just for us.  Even before talking to the controller, we knew they were expecting us because the NDB beacon came on about one hour out of Christmas.  In the days before GPS, it was essential to have the beacon turned on to zoom in on the island.  Several pilots ended up in the brink after trying in vain to find the island when, on occasion, the local controller hadn't been notified of their arrival.  Due to poor communication in Kiribati, the authorities require advance notification of arrival in addition to the flight plan to ensure that the local controller knows when to turn the radio beacon on.

It's always a thrill to catch our first sight of land when we've been flying over sea for several hours - and it was particularly thrilling this time to get our first glimpse of the south-east of Christmas Island after 8 hours of flying with not a speck of land to be seen. The airport is at the north shore of the island.  We enjoyed superb views of the orange salt flats as we crossed the island at about 1500 ft.   The initial headwind had slowed us by about 20 minutes and we landed after 8 and a half hours.

We have temporarily left Polynesia. Although the people of Kiribati look like Polynesians to me, they are in fact Micronesians.  These people originally came from the Philippines, whereas the Polynesians originated in Tonga.   It was still 30 degrees Celsius when we stepped out of the plane at 5 p.m. local time.  We were greeted by friendly customs officials.  After we'd paid the landing fee of US$ 86 to one of the same officials, he called the island's only large hotel, Captain Cook's, to be told they were fully booked.  He therefore drove us to John Bryden's house to see if he could put us up in his guest room.

Funnily enough, I had already heard about John Bryden from a book on islands that I've been reading by an American, Thurston Clarke, entitled 'Searching for Crusoe'.  Thurston visited Christmas Island in 1985.  At that time, Scottish-born John had been living there for five years and was, in Thurston's words, 'earning a living repairing trucks and hauling cargo'.  That was 17 years ago and I thought it likely that John would have moved on by now.  So this came as a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately John had  no room for us either so the customs official drove us to the only other option that was left: Big Eddie's Fishing Lodge.   Big Eddie used to arrange fishing trips for the tourists staying at Captain Cook Hotel.  Then a year and a half ago he started up his own business, catering mainly for American fishermen who arrive on the weekly flight from Honolulu.  Unprepared for such a large fellow, I found this huge hairy monster quite terrifying!  He also ripped us off royally, charging US$ 150 for our rather rustic room.  It had air conditioning and a newly built bathroom but there were boards in the window instead of glass and it was a bit like staying in a dark cave.  When we told him the next morning that we'd managed to get a room at Captain Cook's (thanks to more people leaving on the weekly flight than those arriving), he reduced the price to US$ 145 including a lousy breakfast, which we consumed with a dozen or so flies for company.

Our room at the Captain Cook Hotel was more reasonably priced at 125 Australian dollars  (the currency used in Kiribati). That's about US$ 70. The room was poorly maintained, and the door lock was so rusted up that it was a great struggle to unlock it.  On the plus side, though, it was light and airy, as it was right on the beach and the ocean breeze could pass though it, thanks to windows on either side consisting of glass slats that could be opened up.

Kiribati used to belong to the British and they did nuclear tests there during the Cold War years of the fifties.  They evacuated the islanders at the time, but now the population is increasing rapidly as there is an influx of people from the overcrowded small island of Tarawa to the extreme west of Kiribati.  Christmas Island may be tropical but it is not paradise.  Waste disposal is certainly a problem, not helped by 'leftovers' such as rusting military equipment and oil drums.   There are a few thatched huts left, but most people live in corrugated iron shacks.   The vegetation consists mainly of heliotropes and coconut palms. Fallen palms and rotting coconuts mingle with rusting beer cans to create a shabby carpet.

The Captain Cook hotel and the telephone company are government run.   Telephone communications between the east and west ends of the island are so bad that they are almost non-existent.  Soon after we checked in at the hotel, we just managed to call a guy at the fuel company who said he would take us to the airport for refuelling.   While we were waiting for him we also managed to get through to the number we had for US customs at Hilo (Hawaii) to be told that that number was no longer in service.   Checking the entry requirements, we realized also that the office would in any case be closed, as it was Sunday in Hawaii. It looked as though we might have to spend yet another day on the island since US Customs needed 24 hours notice of our arrival and we could not notify them until (their) Monday.

The fuel guy forgot to pick us up when he went to the airport to meet the weekly flight from Hawaii.  After a further wait, we managed to hitch a ride on one of the hotel trucks.  They manually pumped the precious AVGAS into the tanks from a 200-litre barrel.  Customs and immigration officials were there - also for the weekly flight.  They weren't keen on making another special trip to the airport on the day of our departure so we completed the formalities there and then.  We also called on the 'tower' controller who worked from a small shack. He was most friendly and ready to help us in any way he could.  He had a special telephone line to San Francisco Control and could perhaps phone the flight plan through. To be sure we also called San Francisco on HF and they gave us phone and fax numbers of Honolulu Flight Service.

By this time, all the incoming passengers from the weekly flight had left so there were no more hotel trucks around, and  we had to ask the customs official to drive us back to the hotel again.  This time he accepted petrol money.  After lunch we tried to phone the only dive and snorkelling outfit on Christmas Island, called Dive Kiribati (DK), but - surprise, surprise - the phone line was out of order.  So we hitched a ride with the hotel truck that transported the staff to London, on the west of the island.  We stopped at Dive Kiribati and talked to the owner, Kim Andersen.  Kim is American and has a Danish father - another reason for calling his company DK? By this time it was after 3 p.m.  Kim said it was too late to go snorkelling that day but we could come the next morning and take a ride over with another aviator, Jim Hazelton, who had just flown in from Hilo (Hawaii) in a King Air.  Flemming immediately recognized the name. Jim is an Ozzie who has been ferrying planes across the Pacific for many years - the first time was in 1964 in a single-engine Piper Comanche.  Kim told us Jim was staying with John Bryden. Presumably that was why John had no room for us.

We stayed on board the hotel truck which made several detours on its way back to Captain Cook's, so we got a pretty comprehensive tour of the island!   At least we didn't go thirsty: the staff boarded the truck with a whole load of coconuts and cut a couple open for us to drink the sweet water.

Later we walked over to John Bryden's house and met Jim Hazelton and his son Martin, also a pilot.  On this trip, they are ferrying the King Air to New Zealand where it is to be used by the government.  It turns out that they both know our Earthrounder friend Gary Burns very well, and Martin lives about 5 minutes away from him in  Maroochydore (Queensland).  It was great meeting up with them and swapping flying stories.  Up till this point, we were still considering leaving the next morning if US customs were to accept only a few hours' notice, but Jim said the weather would be better the following day.  Thunderstorms were brewing when they left Hilo that morning so it would be wise to allow them to subside before venturing forth.   Jim also gave Flemming some very valuable information, such as the correct telephone number for US Customs in Hilo and the name of the chief.  He also offered to phone through our flight plan to San Francisco Control the next morning when he filed his own for Faleolo (Western Samoa).  He was going to work while Martin went fishing with Kim Andersen.

So Martin drove us to Dive Kiribati in London early the next morning.  London is on the opposite side of the pass between the lagoon and the ocean from Paris, so named for being at each side of the 'channel'.  And there is an island in the lagoon called Cook Island.  Before we went snorkelling, Flemming was able to call the chief of US Customs in Hilo from Kim's Iridium satellite phone and obtained permission for arrival the following day.  The snorkelling was good and we saw several species of fish that were new to us, including a yellow one with black stains that looked like a fat banana.  Out in the ocean the dolphins came alongside. The younger ones showed off, jumping right out of the water and performing spins in the air.  As we headed back for shore, we were further rewarded  by the sight of three large manta rays cruising along just below the surface and the tips of their 3 to 4 metre wing span kept popping out of the water.

That evening we asked Reception to arrange for one of the hotel trucks to take us to the airport at 7.15 a.m. the following morning.  The truck didn't materialize.  The staff said they were very sorry but all the trucks were needed at that hour to transport the staff to the hotel.  They must have known the night before that they couldn't provide one, but these friendly souls don't know how to say 'No'.  We kicked ourselves for not having arranged to go with Jim and Martin who were departing at the same time as us.  Flemming rushed to John Bryden's house, but they had already left.  John's wife very kindly offered to take us in another pick-up truck.


Jim Hazelton; John Bryden

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Approaching the SE coast of Christmas Island

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Beautiful orange and brown salt flats on Christmas Island
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Big Eddie - proud owner of Big Eddie's fishing lodge
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The Koil fuel company refuelling from a 200-litre AVGAS drum. The weekly Boeing 737 from Honolulu parked behind.
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Dive Kiribati took us snorkelling while Kim Andersen went fishing with Martin Hazelton in the boat behind
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Kim Andersen's wife
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The port in London, Christmas Island, Kiribati
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Martin Hazelton, Flemming, John Bryden, Jim Hazelton and John Bryden's son in front of the Beech King Air that Jim and Martin were ferrying to
New Zealand
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Jim Hazelton, Flemming and Martin Hazelton before our departure for Hilo, Hawaii
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